Wireless Router Reviews

By: Carl Laron on January 31, 2017

Editor's Note:
If you have a fast Internet connection and a need for speed, the Asus RT-AC88U is tough to beat. For everyone else, we found a bevy of lower-priced alternatives that could provide all the performance you need for life online. And if getting a wireless signal everywhere in your home is a challenge, a Wi-Fi system could be the solution.

Asus RT-AC88U Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-AC Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 3,100 Mbps Connectivity -- 8 Gigabit LAN, 1 Gigabit WAN, 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0

Best wireless router

It's not the cheapest wireless-AC router, but on balance, the Asus RT-AC88U is near impossible to beat. It's blazingly fast, has a long range, is relatively easy to set up and use, and is about as feature-laden a router as you are likely to find. In addition to terrific wireless performance (with tested speeds that are faster than what even the fastest residential broadband connections can deliver), its support for wired networking is superb, with eight Gigabit LAN ports and two USB connections.

Buy for $269.99
TP-Link Archer C7 (v2) Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-AC Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 1,750 Mbps Connectivity -- 4 Gigabit LAN, 1 Gigabit WAN, 2 USB 2.0

Best value wireless router

It's not in the same hardware class as the Asus RT-AC88U (Est. $270), but for typical home networks, the TP-Link Archer C7 (v2) is a compelling value. It can't keep up with the fastest broadband connections, but for everyone else, it delivers plenty of throughput for everyday life online, including more than enough bandwidth for streaming video, even 4K. A major plus is that it performs better at longer distances than many routers priced considerably higher.

TP-Link TL-WR841N Review
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-N (2.4 GHz only) Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 300 Mbps Connectivity -- 4 Fast LAN, 1 Fast WAN

Cheap wireless router

For modest networking needs, the TP-Link TL-WR841N is worth considering. This is a single-band (2.4 GHz) router, so speed is limited, but if you don't have a fast broadband connection (50 Mbps), it's still fast enough for most things you'll want to do online. Hardware networking is limited, too, and there's no USB port. Price is the killer feature, however, as you will be hard pressed to find a less expensive router that will still meet the needs of many home Internet users.

Netgear Orbi Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Wireless standard -- Wireless-AC Data transfer rate (theoretical) -- 3,000 Mbps Connectivity -- Main unit: 3 Gigabit LAN, 1 Gigabit WAN, 1 USB 2.0; Satellite unit: 4 Gigabit LAN, 1

Best Wi-Fi system

For larger houses and other settings where getting a usable Wi-Fi signal to every corner of your home is difficult, if not impossible, the Netgear Orbi Wi-Fi system looks to be a top option. The chief advantage this two-unit Wi-Fi system has over competing solutions is a three-channel set-up that delivers its full speeds, which are competitive with standard high-performance wireless-AC routers, even at remote locations. It's rated to cover 4,000 square feet, and add-on satellite units for even more coverage are available.

Buy for $357.98

Types of Wireless Routers

Wireless-AC Routers

These routers comply with the 802.11.ac Wi-Fi standard. They use the 5 GHz band and support faster speeds and more connections than previous-generation routers. They also use the 2.4 GHz band for backward compatibility with older devices. If you have multiple devices that connect simultaneously to the Internet, or if you regularly do things such as competitive online gaming or streaming video on multiple devices, a wireless-AC router is your best choice.

Wireless-AD Routers

Wireless-AD (802.11ad) is the latest Wi-Fi standard and adds support for signals in the 60 GHz band. These routers offer the fastest speeds of all (on the 60 GHz band) and are backward compatible with older wireless protocols. That's a good thing because the 60 GHZ band has very short range compared to the other Wi-Fi frequencies and its signals won't penetrate walls at all. However, if you need to move tons of data between devices in the same room, they are worth considering. That said, there currently are only a handful of wireless-AD routers available, and relatively few compatible client devices such as laptops, tablets, etc.

Wireless-N Routers

For those with minimal connectivity needs, and with older gear that does not support the wireless-AC standard (let alone wireless-AD), a wireless-N (802.11n) router can make sense and save some money. Most wireless-N routers support both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, though some super-cheap legacy routers that only support 2.4 GHz remain available. Wireless-N is slower than wireless-AC (by about a factor of 3), however, and supports fewer simultaneous connections.

Wi-Fi Systems

One issue with any wireless router is range. In a large house, or one with dense walls (such as plaster), getting a usable Wi-Fi signal throughout your home from a router's single access point can be a challenge, or nearly impossible. To overcome that, Wi-Fi systems use mesh technology to spread coverage throughout the premises, and they provide faster speeds and/or easier set up than using other techniques, such as range extenders. The system consists of a main, or parent, node that sits in place of a standard router, and a series of satellite or child nodes that connect to one another to spread the signal. The downside is cost, as you will typically need multiple node units to cover a larger home. All modern Wi-Fi systems are wireless-AC.

Building a home wireless network

To build a computer network in your home or office without running wires everywhere, you need a wireless router to create a Wi-Fi access point. Wi-Fi clients such as laptops, tablets and smartphones can connect via radio signals from anywhere within the router's range to share data. Attach the router to a modem, and those same clients can also wirelessly access the Internet. Wireless routers usually have Ethernet ports, so they can simultaneously support hard-wired networking, and some have USB ports for sharing a printer or an external hard drive over the network.

Many factors can interfere with your wireless network, including nearby electronic devices, other Wi-Fi networks and even the layout of your house. Manufacturers don't take these real-world scenarios into account when claiming a router's performance, and experts say the best routers deliver about half of their claimed throughput.

Another factor that can slow performance is the large and growing number of devices that can connect wirelessly to the internet. All modern wireless-N and wireless-AC routers support MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology, but only to one device at a time. That's not as much of a handicap as you might imagine as the distribution of data to multiple devices happens so quickly that users are unlikely to be even aware that it is happening, even if streaming video to a couple of devices. However, things can slow down if multiple users gulping down lots of data are accessing the router simultaneously.

Enter MU-MIMO, or multi-user MIMO. This is an optional feature of the 802.11.ac standard that allows the router to serve data to up to four users simultaneously. The catch is that it's only compatible with client devices that also support MU-MIMO, and at present, there's not a ton of those available. Also, MU-MIMO support is only beneficial if your network includes at least two client devices that are MU-MIMO compatible. Still, you will find MU-MIMO supported on many higher end wireless-AC routers. These are a good option for some -- such as a competitive gamer who doesn't want his online fun slowed down an instant just because someone else in the household wants to stream 4k video --  and does make a router at least a little more future proof as more MU-MIMO client devices become available.

All but the cheapest current routers support communications over the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Of the two, 2.4 GHz is generally more congested as more devices -- such as cordless phones, garage door openers and the like -- use it. It can also support fewer connections and lower speeds than the 5 GHz band. However, 5 GHz signals have a shorter range in general, and a harder time passing through floors and walls. Wireless-AD routers add support for the 60 GHz band. However, 60 GHz signals are short range and can't penetrate walls, ceilings and floors very well, limiting it to same-room use, but it offers the fastest connection speed of all.

Some wireless routers support beamforming technology. Normally, wireless signals from a router are omnidirectional, travelling with equal strength in all directions. Instead, with beamforming, a router can focus the signal in specific directions to improve range. There are two types of beamforming. In explicit beamforming, introduced with the wireless-AC standard, compatible clients can relay location information to the router. In implicit beamforming, the router will analyze client locations on its own and boost signals in those directions. While implicit beamforming provides some benefits in networks with older devices, explicit beamforming is the more effective technique.

At the high end of the market, you'll also find tri-band wireless-AC devices. These have three radios, one for 2.4 GHz and two separate ones for different frequencies in the 5 GHz band. Though these are marketed as having higher speed, their true advantage is that the extra band allows for more connections. If you have a ton of devices all trying to access your router simultaneously, the added connections will make things appear to move more swiftly. If, on the other hand, you only have a handful of devices trying to make a connection, adding the extra band won't affect throughput in any meaningful way.

Finding The Best Wireless Routers
Our Sources
"Best wireless routers of 2017"
"Wireless Reviews"

To find the best wireless routers for most situations and budgets, we looked at expert reviews, ranging from highly technical resources such as SmallNetBuilder.com to everyday-user-friendly ones such as ConsumerReports.org. Along the way, we also consulted the experts at PCMag.com, CNET, TheWirecutter.com and others. Because the real-world experience of typical consumers can differ so markedly from the brief testing by experts well-versed in the ins and outs of wireless technology, we paid special attention to user feedback posted at sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com -- and there are hundreds and often thousands of user reviews available for popular models. All of that is distilled, analyzed and considered to come up with our recommendations for the Best Reviewed wireless routers.

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